Teaching the Universe: Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA


How often do you see the diagram of a Jim Crow segregated dining room arrangement, in a book about Space and Math? How often do you read a book that discusses Civil Rights  and Halley’s Comet; the history of Black Colleges and the history of Human Computing; the evolution of aircraft and the evolution of government hiring policies?  How often do educators have one tool that teaches Science, Math, Social Studies and English — with a Black and female lens?

How often are Black women at the center of curricula?

Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA by Sue Bradford Edwards and Duchess Harris tells the story of the Black Women Mathematicians hired during World War II to compute the mathematical calculations NASA needed before the age of mechanical computers.  For decades they were literally left out of the picture NASA History. (The image of Annie Easley — picture above — who worked, along with  five White women, as a human computer, was actually cut out of a group photo used for a display at NASA.)

 Hidden Human Computers, provides a peak at the science of air and space craft, and can be used to encourage further STEM research. It is also untold history and can be used by social studies teachers to show that history is about everything, including many stories yet uncovered, inspiring students to go looking for more such treasures. It is the real story of  real people, and could be a launch pad for an oral history project.  It will build enthusiasm for math, especially among Black and female students. When children see themselves in school curricula, they thrive.

This is the second book Macalester Professor, Duchess Harris  has co authored for youth, that makes me both cheer and scream. (The first was an introduction to the origins of the Black Lives Matter Movement, written expressly for middle school students.) 

I cheer “hooray!” for a book that refuses a box — that is — like life — complex and not compartmental.

I also scream “Why isn’t there more of this?” There is too much empty space on the shelf where this volume belongs,  standing with other works that allow children to dream big, without sugar-coating real race, gender and economic barriers to success.

More please.



Black Lives Matter, the Middle School Edition!

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On October 26, 2015  Duchess Harris,launched Black Lives Matter, a book she coauthored with Sue Bradford Edwards aimed at students grades 6-12.   The reader, written at an 8th grade level, just makes one hungry for more. Suddenly we can imagine school library shelves filled with books for children dealing with issues that matter to them.


Professor Harris teaches courses on civil rights, race and the law at Macalester college. In a comment I could relate to as an instructor of Race and Public Policy, she  noted that when she teaches first year college students she is starting from scratch. “Imagine” she said to a colleague who teaches math, “Imagine teaching college algebra to students who never had math in their K-12 years. That is what is like teaching about race.”Harris’ hopes that her book’s wide use in the nation’s middle schools, will make her job as a college instructor easier.


It is an unusual thing to read a book about current events of any kind, let alone a book about race.  Black Lives Matter doesn’t fill a gap — it magnifies it  while dropping a pearl in the bucket.

The book — published at lightening speed — begins with Micheal Browns’s story, the unarmed youth murdered by Ferguson Missouri police officer Daryl Wilson in August of 2014  and then steps back and provides two chapters of  historical context beginning with slavery and Dred Scott, moving to Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. It then includes more individual case studies of recent criminal injustice:  Travon Martin, killed by an acquitted neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford Florida in 2012,  Oscar Grant killed by transit police at a Bay area train station in 2009,  Renisha McBride, shot by a homeowner when she sought help for after a car accident in Detroit in 2013, Eric Garner the New York father smothered to death by a gang of cops for selling loose cigarettes on a New York Street corner in 2014; Tony Robinson the distressed unarmed young man shot by police in Madison Wisconsin in 2015; and Freddy Gray the Baltimore man who died after a ride in a police van in April 2015. Six police officers have been charged in Gray’s death.

The book was finished a few days before Sandra Bland, a Black Lives Matter activist and student at Prairie View A&M University,  lost her life in Waller county Texas after she was stopped by an officer for a frivolous traffic violation and hauled to jail, so the book does not say her name. That is our job, until justice is done.

There are chapters that put these stories into the larger context of ajudicial system, from policing to sentencing.  Sections on the social movement leave this reader wanting more, with less emphasis on government action and more on the work of social activists.

A pearl begging for more pearls.

Harris and a colleague with expertise in K-12 curriculum will be creating a lesson plans for teachers, which they hope to publish as early as January. Perhaps more personal stories of activists can be included there.

Black Lives Matter, the book and forthcoming companion curricula are a  beautiful beginning. Let’s go forth, activists, academics, educators and authors, and multiply!

(PS. Here are a couple places to look for other  K-12 Ethnic Studies resources: Rethinking Schools, and Teaching Tolerance.  Write in about other individual or collective sources!)

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